Kanban is a word most of us in the project management field have heard by now. Some swear by it others are critical, but either way it is here to stay. And there is no better reason to dig in and get to know what really stands behind the practice. Who knows, maybe you’ll like it so much you will decide to switch over.
To put it technically, Kanban is a task management method that aims to eliminate waste while delivering as fast as possible and enabling the team to take full control. Stemming from Lean method it gives the practitioners tools to purify their processes and achieve the best and fastest results. While it may sound like any other project management approach on paper, Kanban has certain benefits that cannot be argued. The most important being visualisation and limitation of the process.
Drawing the Board
To understand what Kanban is, you first have to get acquainted with its most important tool – the Kanban Board. Contrary to traditional project management methods, this board not only monitors, but drives and regulates the team. Which makes it an essential part of the process. The structure of a Kanban board however is not that complicated. Columns are used to represent the process steps and lanes can be dedicated to separate different teams, products, projects or iterations.
The traditional Kanban board is comprised out of 3 sections – Backlog, Work In Progress and Done.
- Backlog is dedicated to tasks that are planned and prioritized for the team to complete in the near future. It is common for Backlogs to have one planned and at least two priority columns. Thus the tasks are ranked as the most important, important and those that should be completed if there is time.
- Work In Progress section represents all the steps a team member has to take in order to complete a task. These steps vary from team to team and can be anything from a couple to twenty or more. The key here is representing all the important and distinctive steps of the process.
- Lastly, the Done section is where the completed tasks are stored. Tasks only make it to this column if they meet all the Definition of Done requirements specified by the team. (DoD is a list of criteria that a task must pass to be considered completed).
By drawing such a board, the process is visualized for easier management and estimation. But how do you make sure the team stays on track and self-monitors? This is where Kanban limitations come in.
The next step in the Kanban journey is adding in WIP (Work In Progress) limits. To make sure your team is only working on one task at a time and completing the most important tasks first, Kanban limits the number of tasks that can be added to any one column. This is used both in priority and work in progress columns, but for different purposes. In priority columns such limit allows to only give highest importance to a certain number of tasks. Which makes them truly think and evaluate what should be done first and what can wait. While in WIP columns this limit only lets the team to work on a certain number of tasks (usually one per team member) at a time. Thus making sure each task is actually completed before a new one can be taken on.
WIP limits allow the team to only work on the most important parts of the project and give the ability to notice any problems almost instantly. When a team member cannot start a new task before finishing the previous one, it is much easier to spot any bottlenecks and correct them right away.
Getting to Work
Once the board is fully set up, your team is ready to get to work. It is important to note here, that Kanban rarely has one team member specifically responsible for the whole team. It is more of a collaborative effort between all the team members to deliver results. To facilitate this dynamic, Kanban adds in four distinct meetings that happen once the team needs them.
The very first meeting to take place in any Kanban project is the planning session. It is done at the beginning of every iteration and then set of by the planning trigger. (Planning trigger informs the team once there is a certain number of tasks left in the backlog. This is usually enough for the team to continue working while the planning session is held.) During this meeting the team sits down to plan and prioritize tasks in the backlog, deciding what is the most important and should be done next.
Each task is dedicated a separate task card that often holds additional information required to complete the tasks. This is more common with electronic Kanban boards, but can be done with physical ones as well. The team also estimates how much time each task will take and puts this number on each task card. This is a great way of predicting the time required to finish the iteration and give an accurate estimate to clients.
After the tasks are planned, the team can start working and this includes having a short 15 minute meeting every morning. During this meeting team members present what they have accomplished during the previous day and what they have planned for today. It is a way of making sure everyone can complete their tasks. It also allows to check if there are any issues with the planned work. If a task proves to be difficult to complete or to have any roadblocks, the whole team brainstorms solutions.
Once the team feels like they have added sufficient value to their product or the end goal they can decide to end an iteration and start a new one. During this time, the team can also hold an Iteration Review meeting to present their accomplishments to the clients or stakeholders. While this meeting is not common, it is a great way of collecting feedback and adjusting the course before going forward.
Kanban projects usually end in one of two ways – reaching the deadline or building the final product. Either way, due to the prioritization during each iteration, the client is left with a fully functional and satisfying result. Once this happens, it is time to hold the final Kanban meeting – the Retrospective. During this final session the team sits down to discuss the process and how it could be improved. It is really helpful to see what has and hasn’t worked and how it could be changed in the future projects.
In short, this is what Kanban project management looks like. It eliminates waste, by only allowing a certain flow of tasks and involves the whole team into the process by making them more responsible for the end result.
Here at Teamhood we believe that your Kanban board can be pushed just a little bit further. Thus we have introduced a second dimension to the process. Instead of only having tasks move from one column to the next, we offer the ability to create a separate flow for the subtasks themselves.
Once a task card is moved into the WIP column, you are able to see all the subtasks it has and create separate progress columns just for the subtasks (for example – To Do, Development, Testing, Done). This added functionality allows to control the flow of subtasks and see the progress. As well as creating a manageable feedback loop before a task is moved onto the next step.
Kanban is a great way of working for teams that play well together and can self-govern. As well as for those that need flexibility and ability to change course depending on the circumstances. Because of this, Kanban has quickly moved past software development and found its application in engineering, design, sales and many other industries. Kanban can differentiate and grow depending on the team that is using it and the way Kanban boards differentiate from team to team is a great example of that.
To keep an eye on the basics while looking for your Kanban recipe, grab this cheat sheet.